Latrobe's 'crackpot' scheme changed Delaware culture forever
By ROBIN BROWN, The News Journal
|The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal gave early shippers a shortcut and changed Delaware culture.
The 14-mile canal across southern New Castle County "is the only 19th century improvement still in operation ... [and] carries more tonnage than the Suez and Panama canals combined," according to the Historical Society of Delaware.
The canal did not come quickly or easily. From an idea in the 1600s to its 1800s opening, the project faced money issues, stalls and wavering support, said Delaware Public Archives Director Russ McCabe.
In the 1600s, Dutch envoy Augustine Herman, a mapmaker, first suggested a canal across the land between the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay. Surveys were done in the 1700s. Benjamin Franklin was a key canal supporter. Work started in 1804, but ended within two years because of a lack of funding.
Engineer Benjamin H. Latrobe wanted the canal from the Christina River to Chesapeake Bay, and was called both "a crackpot and a visionary" for his proposal to take boats loaded with coal from one stream to another through locks, an artificial reservoir and feeders, according to historian C.A. Weslager. He said the project "slumbered ... without a drop of water," until conflict with England fanned interest, but the War of 1812 left the idea abandoned again.
A reorganized effort in the 1820s used funds from the federal government, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. Engineer John Randel Jr.'s plan moved the canal south of the Christina, sparking an uproar in Wilmington. Construction began anew in 1824, but the historical society says the job would not have gotten done without business folks footing most of the cost -- more than $2 million.
The dig found deposits of old shell called marl. "The lime content of the marl made it suited as fertilizer and thousands of tons were purchased cheaply by the New Castle County farmers and used to enrich their fields," Weslager wrote. Diggers also found "marine fossils ... of extinct invertebrates that had lived in an ancient sea which once covered the lower stretches of the Delmarva Peninsula during the last interglacial period," he said.
When the canal opened in 1829, fortunes changed. Delaware City boomed. Thriving spots of the earlier shipping era busted. Christiana, for one, lost commerce from ships that had unloaded goods there to be hauled on land to Elkton, Md., for later shipping to Baltimore.
In 1919, the U.S. government bought the canal and spent more than $23 million in the 1920s and '30s to get rid of most locks and widen and deepen the canal for heavier ships.
Created to cut 300 hazardous miles off shipping from Philadelphia to Baltimore, the canal's cultural cut was unintended. "The Ditch," as some locals say, shifted where Delaware's cultural personality splits -- more urban and fast-paced to the north, more agricultural and relaxed to the south. Pre-canal, Weslager said, that divide was defined by the Christina River.